The Tech 20
Compiled by Jens David Ohlin
Obliged to inhabit the dépassé quarters of cash-strapped universities, professors are rarely seen as the vanguard of societal change. But, as Lingua Franca discovered, when it comes to the digital revolution, the old clichés don't apply. With the vast majority of its members enjoying free access to sophisticated computer technology, the professoriat is one of America's most wired populations. More than just avid users, however, academics are busy shaping—and misshaping—the electronic universe. Here, from our own informal, highly eclectic survey, are twenty especially noteworthy innovators and iconoclasts.
Professor of philosophy at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand
The irrepressible editor of Philosophy and Literature had all the pundits talking this winter when his annual Bad Writing Contest ribbed Judith Butler and Homi Bhabha for impenetrable prose. Meanwhile, Dutton was hard at work on a less sensational pursuit: operating "Arts and Letters Daily" (www.cybereditions.com/aldaily/), a Web-based compendium of links to the latest news, opinion, and gossip about the world's intellectuals. The Web site, with the motto veritas odit moras ("Truth detests folly"), is updated daily and provides Web-savvy eggheads with one-stop shopping for reprints of the latest provocative book review, literary disputation, or biting cultural analysis. Culled from dozens of publications such as The New Republic and the London Review of Books (not to mention Lingua Franca), it's everything an aspiring intellectual needs to know.
The Web is notorious for drowning users with information they don't want, don't need—or just can't trust. What the new medium gains in relevance and sexiness, say its critics, it loses in accountability, reliability, and quality. But Dutton's site stands out for its consistent blend of high-quality, irreverent writing and its unerring instinct for the important and interesting.
"At this stage in its evolution, the Web resembles a typical Australian goldfield, with vast mountains of low-grade ore. Mining in both cases can be arduous. On the Internet, it means sifting through endless streams of verbose, underedited, often self-indulgent prose, frequently accompanied by those tedious graphics that negate the 'instant information' advantage of the Web."
JAMES P. CRUTCHFIELD
Research professor and director of the Computation, Dynamics, and Inference Program at the Santa Fe Institute
Real-life Frankensteins, Crutchfield and his team are the creators of artificial life. But it's not the sort of artifical life likely to wander up to the North Pole or to harm Crutchfield's friends: Cellular automata, as they are called, are computer programs that simulate the behavior of cells. Just as organic cells presumably communicate with each other in very simple ways in order to form complex organisms, the automata follow simple sets of instructions such as, "If most of the nearest cells are black, turn black." These instructions require the automata to pattern their behavior on the behavior of their neighbors, producing in the end surprisingly complex and unpredictable networks. Crutchfield's team is now working to develop communities of cellular automata that will evolve toward blinking in unison—simulating the rhythm of a heartbeat.
Crutchfield's research cuts in two directions: On the one hand, scientists can use his computer program to shed light on the inner workings of evolution and on the nature of complexity in biology. On the other hand, Crutchfield's team brings insights from biology to bear on problems of computer science such as the distribution of computational tasks.
"Cellular automata give us some insight into population dynamics in biology. If all goes well, they will also tell us how to use evolutionary algorithms for programming parallel computers. These are really two sides of the same coin."
Professor of geography at the University of California at Santa Barbara
In 1985, Golledge, who lost his sight to a degenerative disease of the optic nerve, was surprised by a phone call from UC-Santa Barbara perceptual psychologist Jack Loomis. Loomis was convinced that with Golledge's help he could develop a device that would help the blind know their surroundings. Together with Carnegie Mellon psychologist Roberta Clatzky, the triumvirate built the prototype for a portable navigation system. It uses the Global Positioning System, which has twenty-four satellites orbiting the globe, to pinpoint the traveler's exact location on a detailed map. This information is then communicated to a computer programmed with copious details about the surrounding terrainódown to cobblestone paths and trees. As the user moves toward a destination, he or she hears a voice through earphones saying what's up ahead, including the distance and direction of obstacles and landmarks.
The blind users of Golledge's system will receive more information about their surroundings than a cane or seeing eye dog could ever provide. Unfortunately, the descriptions of the environment will never be perfect because moving obstaclesólike peopleócan't be included on maps. The apparatus also needs to be miniaturized: Right now it's a bulky backpack system weighing twenty-two pounds.
"The system creates an auditory virtual reality instead of a visual virtual reality. The sound makes it seem as if the environment is talking to you as you pass through it.... But there's a limit to how many sounds you can perceive at once. With your eyes, you can take a quick glance, then close them and remember a thousand things. But hearing ten thousand sounds at once would be pretty difficult."
EDWARD L. AYERS
Hugh P. Kelly Professor of History at the University of Virginia
Ayers's Web site enables users to drop in on two Civil War-era communities: Augusta County in Virginia and Franklin County in Pennsylvania. One is Southern and the other Northern, but they are separated by just a few hundred miles. The Web site (jefferson.village.virginia. edu/vshadow2/) allows students to access a digital arsenal of military, church, and agricultural records from the two counties, as well as letters, diaries, maps, photographs, and newspaper articles from the war years. Later this year, Norton will publish part one of a CD-ROM version of the Web site under the title Valley of the Shadow: Two Communities in the American Civil War.
With direct access to a vast array of primary materials, students can reconstruct for themselves the historical circumstances and moral complexities of the Civil War. Ayers encourages them not to rely on the conclusions of scholars but to examine the evidence on their own, filtering the grand debates of the era through the records left behind by ordinary nineteenth-century Americans.
"The greatest obstacle new media faces is its own hyperbole," Ayers told one interviewer. "As a historian, no matter how postmodern I might be, I don't throw around words like 'revolution.' A railroad is a revolution. Is the Internet a new railroad? Is it just TV on steroids? We don't know yet. We're in the crystal-radio stage of this technology."
Professor of physics at the University of Oregon
You don't have to be an astronomer to catch a good look at the starsóif Bothun has his way. With the use of a digital camera and high-speed data transfers, Bothun hopes to give students in remote classrooms the chance to view live data transmitted from faraway telescopes.
Currently, even professional astronomers compete fiercely for scarce telescope time. Where does this leave students? Until now, they've relied on commercial software that simulates the experience of scientific discovery. Bothun's project would allow students to acquire and analyze raw data about the universe for themselves.
"I believe it is the personal responsibility of the scientist to help educate the public to show that we live in a rational universe. With the widespread appeal of the Internet, scientists now have a good opportunity to place their data and their explanations in a public forum allowing immediate access."
Professor of sociology and planning at the University of California at Berkeley
Castells spent twelve years traveling all over the world to observe the impact of information technology in situ. His findings became an epic trilogy called The Information Age (Blackwell). In the three volumes—The Rise of the Network Society (1996), The Power of Identity (1997), and End of Millennium(1998)—the Spanish sociologist argues that from the collapse of the Soviet Union to the rise of religious fundamentalism, information technology has been the primary motor of change in the late-twentieth century. In a world where access is everything, the Internet has created sweeping new categories of inclusion and exclusion: Whole populations, like the American urban poor, disappear into informational "black holes," while the wired and wealthy shape the possibilities of a medium that forges new communities even while it blows the old ones apart.
With The Information Age, Castells has won over not only the academic digerati but also a wider world of policymakers, industry leaders, and intellectually curious Web mavens. At a recent meeting of the World Economic Forum, the onetime political exile from Franco's Spain had the opportunity to address a crowd that included Kofi Annan, Al Gore, Bill Gates, George Soros, and Yasser Arafat.
"This new form of social organization, in its pervasive globality, is diffusing throughout the world—as industrial capitalism and its twin enemy, industrial statism, did in the twentieth century—shaking institutions, transforming cultures, creating wealth and inducing poverty, spurring greed, innovation, and hope, while simultaneously imposing hardship and instilling despair."
THOMAS K. LANDAUER
Professor of psychology at the University of Colorado
Landauer's bitter attack on the computer industry, The Trouble With Computers: Usefulness, Usability, and Productivity (MIT, 1995), was just the opening salvo from a group of critics who question the cult of the all-powerful computer. Landauer wondered if the trillions of dollars spent on computers in this country have yielded more than marginal increases in economic productivity. On a more upbeat note, Landauer has also helped develop the Intelligent Essay Assessor, a program that grades student essays [see "New Word Order," page 28].
Ever get stuck in a checkout line with a cashier who can't operate the register, with a UPC code that won't scan properly, or with a debit card that gets declined? Landauer wants software designers to test their programs on real people doing real jobs. His mantra is UCD, UCD, UCD: user-centered design, user-centered development, user-centered deployment. A computer is useless if you can't use it.
"What's going on here? I believe that computers are in deep trouble. Certainly they have had and continue to have amazing triumphs; they've helped put humans on the moon, revised warfare completely, made it possible to solve centuries-old mathematics problems, led to bursts of new scientific knowledge, and taken over our bookkeeping and our telephone switches... but the promise that computers would contribute to the economy, to a vast improvement in the standard of living, has not been kept."
Professor of anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania, curator of the European section of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology
Back in 1985, Dibble was the first archaeologist to use a laser instrument called an electronic theodolite to measure excavated artifacts in three dimensions. The theodolite, now widely used in archaeology, increases both the speed and the precision with which researchers can take measurements in the field. In addition to developing related computer software, Dibble has also co-authored (with Shannon McPherron) Virtual Dig (Mayfield, 1999), a workbook and CD-ROM that allows students to plan a virtual excavation based on real data from one of Dibble's digs in Combe-Capelle, France.
Virtual Dig gives students a feel for doing an excavation without having to visit the nearest Neolithic site. Students put together a budget for their dig, select a crew, and then analyze and interpret their findings. They can then compare their conclusions with Dibble's own published results. The CD-ROM includes full-color maps of the site and photos of the artifacts, as well as related graphs and charts.
"Computers can simulate experiences that are otherwise almost impossible to have."
Linguist, assistant professor of computer science at Duquesne University
Ever try to email a five-hundred-page manuscript to your publisher or your best friend—only to have that person tell you to use a Stuffit program? Little did you know that the same software you used to compress your manuscript was the latest tool in the study of language. Juola takes a text such as the Bible or the collected works of Shakespeare and compares its renderings in two different languages, say Russian and Maori. After running both versions of the text through compression software similar to commercial programs like Stuffit, he measures the size of the resulting files. Because the program condenses files by reducing repetitions, the size of each compressed file reflects the number of unique words and word sequences in the original. The simpler the language, the smaller the file; the more complex the language, the larger the file.
Using different compression algorithms, Juola can search for different kinds of language complexity. He has been able to map a language's reliance on prefixes and suffixes against its reliance on syntax, for instance, with a degree of precision and subtlety that would be unattainable without the computer.
"The real advances that have made this possible are in the availability of large amounts of computer-readable text. I can buy CDs with forty or fifty different versions of the Bible—or the complete works of William Shakespeare, or an entire encyclopedia—for a hundred dollars. In 1960, to put all of Shakespeare onto a computer would have cost several million dollars in tapes and punch cards alone."
JANE M. HEALY
Colorado-based educational psychologist, consultant to schools and parents' groups
Healy's Failure to Connect (Simon & Schuster, 1998) mounts a full-frontal attack on the misuse of computers in early-childhood education. Originally a techno-enthusiast, Healy started visiting grade-school computer labs to see how children interact with their computers. She was disturbed to find simplistic software packages that were more devoted to edutainment than learning; she also discovered poor lighting conditions, students acquiring bad posture, and an impulse among teachers and administrators to plop children in front of computer screens instead of teaching them basic language and analytic skills.
Al Gore, take heed: Although Healy is still optimistic about the educational potential of computers, she raises sharp questions about politicians' promises to wire every classroom. In the software she's seen in schools, flashy graphics take precedence over challenging tasks that require problem-solving skills. What's needed? Computer programmers should work with learning experts who understand how and why children learn to read, and teachers should introduce computers to students gradually, starting at age seven.
"When I first went to consult in schools, I assumed that this great evolution was coming to pass. But I was horrified by what I saw. The children were not being made smarter—they were being dumbed down by the machines. Why is America constantly looking for a quick fix when raising and educating its children? It can't be done by clicking a mouse and leaving it at that."
Lecturer in anthropology at Stanford University
Is artificial life socially constructed? It sounds like either a tautology or an oxymoron—but that hasn't stumped Helmreich. Silicon Second Nature: Culturing Artificial Life in a Digital World (California, 1998) is Helmreich's anthropological study of artificial-intelligence researchers at the Santa Fe Institute. He asks how computer research is affected by the assumptions of its practitioners, who are almost all middle-class white men. As he explores the researchers' self-perceptions, he finds that many see themselves as omnipotent creators of a more ordered life-form.
It's sometimes hard to tell whether we pursue research into artificial life because we'd like to see machines behave more like people or because we'd like to see people behave more like machines. Either way, Helmreich's work raises the possibility that computers may be no more rational, and no less flawed, than their creators, who made the machines in their own image, after all.
"The claims of some artificial-life researchers to have synthesized life may sound strikingly novel, but they also mutate a well-rooted historical tradition of attempting to manufacture living things, a tradition that entwines activities that have been variously mystical, literary, religious, technological, and scientific."
Professor of linguistics, director of the linguistics laboratory at the University of Pennsylvania
Are regional dialects disappearing from American English? Conventional wisdom says yes, but according to Labov's systematic, computerized analysis, regional accents are anything but a thing of the past. Using computer software that analyzes vowel usage and speech patterns, Labov has concluded that accents and dialects are actually on the rise in the inner cities. His findings will be published in print form as a first-of-its-kind phonological atlas, which will also be released on a CD-ROM with audio clips. Parts of it are already on the Web (www.ling.upenn.edu/phono_atlas/ home.html).
Labov, a pioneer in the field of sociolinguistics, believes that his findings are a "bad omen" for American society. Stronger accents and more distinct dialects could be symptoms of the growing geographical and cultural isolation of the inner city. That isolation could reinforce barriers to educational equality: As the recent Ebonics fracas demonstrated, to teach kids how to read, you need to understand how and why they talk the way they do. Meanwhile, Labov's work has happier ramifications for computerized voice-recognition software, which may soon be able to understand you no matter how funny you talk.
"All of this technology could easily carry us away from the human issues involved in the use of language. From my point of view, that might win the game but lose the match. I spend a great deal of my time in the laboratory, at the office, or in class. But the work that I really want to do, the excitement and adventure of the field, comes in meeting the speakers of the language face-to-face, entering their homes, hanging out on corners, porches, taverns, pubs, and bars."
Physicist at the Los Alamos National Laboratory
Do too many peer reviewers spoil a scientific paper? Not according to Ginsparg—or the many physicists who visit his Web site (xxx.lanl.gov). Ginsparg has created an on-line database of scientific papers, available to the entire professional community for reading and commentary before their publication in print journals. Since its genesis in 1991, the Ginsparg Net (as it is now known) has grown from a resource serving two hundred physicists to an international archive accessed by more than sixty thousand users in eighty countries. Scientists in the developing world enjoy the same level of access as a graduate student at Harvard.
Instead of waiting for results to be published in print journals with months-long publication lags, physicists now get immediate access to each other's research findings. Physicists who post papers receive private emails from those peers who choose to critique their methodology and results. The writer then resubmits a revised draft, which is posted on Ginsparg's site. A potentially unlimited number of scientists can contribute to the development of each author's work—strengthening the final article before it goes to a print journal.
"The essential question at this point is not whether the scientific research literature will migrate to fully electronic dissemination but rather how quickly this transition will take place now that all of the requisite tools are available."
JANET H. MURRAY
Director of the Program in Advanced Interactive Narrative Technology at Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Murray's Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace (MIT, 1997) argues that computer games, hypertext fiction, and virtual reality have changed the way we tell stories. The reader, once passive before the will of the author, has become newly empowered to shape narratives. Heavy on cyberculture, Star Trek examples, and French literary theory, Murray's tome aspires to be a prolegomenon for a new genre: cyberliterature. Will she be the Nicholas Negroponte of storytelling?
The champions of hypertext have long heralded the dawn of nonlinear fiction. Skeptics remained unimpressed: Were interactive stories any closer to literature than to adolescent role-playing fantasy games? Murray argues that a changing world requires a changing conception of literature. Conventional literature was fine for conventional humanity. Now, she argues, we need cyberdrama as kaleidoscopic as our lives.
"In trying to imagine Hamlet on the holodeck, I am not asking if it is possible to translate a particular Shakespeare play into another format. I am asking if we can hope to capture in cyberdrama something as true to the human condition, and as beautifully expressed, as the life that Shakespeare captured on the Elizabethan stage."
DAVID F. NOBLE
Professor of history at York University, and currently visiting professor of history at Harvey Mudd College
Noble's "Digital Diploma Mills" is a no-holds-barred attack on the computerization and commodification of higher education. Published on the Internet, in the Marxist journal Monthly Review, and in October, a prominent journal of the visual arts, Noble's 1997 essay calls on professors to join forces against university administrators and their high-tech schemes. Noble believes that the spread of computer technology into the classroom and the dormitory is undermining the professional status and intellectual freedom of the faculty. When lecture notes are transformed into digital courseware, for example, professors lose control of their own intellectual property, which becomes a commodity for universities to buy and sell for their own benefit. Meanwhile, the demand to answer countless email messages increases faculty responsibilities without any accompanying increase in salary.
As a professor at York University in Toronto, Noble participated in a successful faculty strike that resulted in the university's agreeing not to digitize any educational resources without faculty approval. If professors continue to fight, and win, such battles, it will be in part due to Noble's clarion call.
"Here, as elsewhere, technology is but a vehicle and a disarming disguise."
JOHN A. PINTO
Howard Crosby Butler Professor of the History of Architecture at Princeton University
Pinto's students can prowl the streets of old Rome from the comfort of their dorm rooms thanks to his on-line version of the famous Nolli map. Named after Giovanni Battista Nolli, who supervised its creation in 1748, the map is considered a masterpiece of urban cartography. Pinto's digital version includes photographs of the hundreds of monuments marked on the map as well as photographs of modern-day Rome, which are included so students can see how the cityscape has changed over time. The site also provides pertinent literary annotations—excerpts from writings on Rome by everyone from St. Augustine to Henry James.
With Pinto's map, which he developed with his colleague Kirk Alexander, students can put the monuments of Rome in their original contexts—cultural, literary, historical, and geographic. And they enjoy a visual experience worthy of Cecil B. De Mille. The slide projector, once the art historian's best friend, might be the next historical relic.
"The new technology allows students to exercise their own intellectual curiosity much more freely. They can explore the city by walking with the cursor down streets we don't discuss in lecture, and they can make their own discoveries or raise interesting questions that often yield excellent paper topics."
Research scientist, Fulbright scholar at the Center for Art and Media Technology in Karlsruhe, Germany
Sengers, who received a doctorate from Carnegie Mellon University last year, studies the strange world of "artificial agents"—from computer code to actual robots, from smart vacuum cleaners to virtual pets. Although these agents are programmed to complete very specific tasks, they aren't programmed to coordinate their behavior into a seamless whole that seems rational to the rest of us. That, Sengers believes, gives artificial agents the appearance of being almost schizophrenic—jumping around randomly, from one behavior to the next. To remedy this disease, Sengers is trying to build agents that can explain their behavior and motivations. Her research combines hard-core cognitive science with cultural theory—from the anti-psychiatry movement of the 1960s to A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari.
Some theorists argue that the only way we can understand another person's behavior is to fashion it into a coherent narrative. Applying this idea to technological instruments could inaugurate a new generation of user-friendly software products, from word processors that explain themselves to avatars that can speak for you in virtual reality.
"Cultural theory is often in danger of being ghettoized. Connecting it to real technological developments can give theory a broader impact. I see my work as one possible way out of the science wars: uniting concerns of scientists and cultural theorists in projects that are meaningful to both."
Professor of philosophy at Earlham College
Since 1996, philosophers have been clicking their way to Suber's Web page, where he maintains a cornucopia of personally vetted philosophical links (www.earlham. edu/~peters/philinks.htm). From Suber's site, you can swiftly find your way to philosophical journals, associations, job postings, mailing lists, preprints, and even course syllabi. Until recently, the site was not searchable by keyword. But now it includes Hippias, a limited-area search engine developed by the University of Evansville's Tony Beavers. A Hippias search turns up a directory of quality-controlled Web sites. Suber is also the co-editor of Beavers's latest innovation, Noesis, a Web-based archive of digital material for research purposes. Complete texts of philosophical essays, lectures, and reviews are immediately available and searchable by keyword. A planned merger of the two sites is in the works.
A search for "Plato" with the AltaVista search engine brings up the Greek philosopher's dialogues—but you also get hits for a town in Illinois. The search engine on Hippias separates the philosophical from the pedestrian, and the Noesis search engine separates the profound from the perfunctory. The result is fully "zoomable" searching.
"Philosophy is a field in which a good print library has far more primary and secondary sources than the Web. I often get email from users asking why Hippias can't find much on so-and-so or such and such. The answer is that, for many philosophical topics, the Web is not yet the best place for research. However, Hippias and Noesis are laying foundations for software research so that, as more content arrives, useful tools and services will already be at hand, debugged, optimized, widely known, and linked."
Former professor of architecture at University of California at Berkeley, now general contractor and practicing architect in the Berkeley area
Alexander's 1977 book, A Pattern Language (Oxford), sought to create a universal dictionary of design motifs that nonarchitects can use to build office buildings, homes, and even towns for themselves. In it, he presents 253 "patterns" or structures that have occurred repeatedly over time. According to Alexander, all spatial entities—from the smallest room to an entire continent—include these visual elements. By the very frequency of their appearance, he argues, these motifs can be identified as the basic building blocks of design.
Oddly enough, it's software developers not architects who have adopted Alexander's text as their bible. Pioneers of object-oriented programming are looking at Alexander's work to help them design a common programming language. Might there be patterns in existing software—combinations of commands that crop up again and again—that behave like the patterns Alexander sees in the visual world? If so, those patterns could be treated as the equivalent of discrete objects and moved about among programs accordingly.
"The big thing is the attempt to create beautiful and complete wholes—and software people are not there. But the fact that ten thousand people are working on patterns in software means these programmers are being effective."
Professor of philosophy at the University of California at San Diego and an adjunct at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla
One half of a power couple with her husband Paul, also a philosopher at UCSD, Patricia Churchland is one of the most influential and controversial figures in the consciousness wars. The mind-body problem, Churchland argues, cannot be studied in isolation: Philosophers must seek to understand the brain's neurological activities. Churchland practices what she preaches. Her own efforts to develop a "computational" model of the brain as an information processor are informed by the latest in neurological research. She gleans knowledge from magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) maps of the brain and from single-cell recording devices, which use microelectrodes to gauge the activities and responses of individual neurons.
Her critics accuse her of reductionism and overstatement. But if she and her husband are right, then magneto-encephalography and MRIs might turn out to be the holy grail that scientists and philosophers are looking for—the secret of human cognition.
"We can't understand the nature of how we smell without understanding the nature of the olfactory system. Similarly, we can't understand the nature of consciousness unless we understand the nature of the brain. It would be very nice if we could answer fundamental questions about the brain without actually taking it apart. But that's not how nature is, how reality is."